Balkan Journeys Close To Home

Balkan Journeys Close To Home
Staro Selo
1. Grabile Smiljana Devoika
2:13
2. Ajde Red Se Redat
3:18
3. Ajde Mala Stana Bolna Legna
2:41
4. Idi Da Go Sakas Mamo
2:37
5. Oj Jovane
2:30
Neda Voda
6.. Ajde Sto e Dzumbus
3:00
7. O Gospozo
4:26
8. Taja Vecer Ic Ne Sum Vesela
3:15
9. Jaste I Pite
4:16
10. Rano Si Stanalo
3:28
Mastika
11. Lupchevo
2:38
12. Trip To Bulgaria
2:13
13. Pumkin Paidushko
2:14
Altin Yildiz Orkestar
14. Rumelaj
4:21
15. Cano Cano
4:21
16. Zurefa
4:03
17. Chiftetelli #6
5:15
18. Ajde Sto E Dzumbus
5:40
19. Feryad
7:17
 

About the Bands of Balkan Journeys Close To Home: Staro Selo, Neda Voda, Mastika, Altin Yildiz Orkestar

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Toronto, Ontario is a fairly un-Balkan place. It's quite flat for one thing, the winters are slushy and the summers are muggy. But there is a historical Balkan presence in Canada. For the past hundred years or so cities like Toronto and the forests and mines of Northern Ontario have been the destination for thousands of immigrants from the ever strife torn Balkan region, seeking a bit of peace and a decent wage.

The district of Cabbagetown in Toronto was so named because the predominantly Macedonian residents were in the habit of growing cabbages in their little gardens. There is still a Macedonian Church there today, tough Cabbagetown itself has become somewhat gentrified and the community has moved out of the suburbs.

Call the force whatever you will, America's Melting Pot or Canada's Kaleidoscope, as much as it encouraged assimilation it allowed for various groups to maintain some of the cultural aspects of their homeland. What this has meant for those of us interested in more than just the music we grew up with (whatever that music might be) is that we have only to go as far as the next restaurant, night club, community center, summer festival or picnic to sample a taste both musical and gastronomic of other cultures.

And that's where this recording begins, with a group of Balkan folk music lovers, some music students and community folk musicians who began to sing and play together. The groups represented here are by no means the only Balkan groups in the area but they are a beginning and represent for all involved, various steps in their continuing musical journeys; journeys sometimes made through time and to other lands by dint of imagination but always with the heart…

We hope you enjoy traveling with us.


reviews & comments

The tabloid headline screams: "Ottoman Empire Lives! Secret Outposts Found in Canada!" A put-on? Not in the least, if the musicians on Balkan Journeys Close to Home have anything to say about it. And indeed they do beginning with the Bulgarian bands Staro Selo and Neda Voda, then fast-forwarding to the string trio Mastika and the trans-Balkan/Turkish Altin Yildiz Orkestar, the spirit of their music is captured in one title "Rod Serling's Trip to Bulgaria." Sound a little wacko? Well, maybe, but it turns out that Toronto is a hotbed of things Eastern, as if there was one huge, non-stop Turko-jam going on. According to annotator and vocalist Brenna MacCrimmon, that's truer than many residents know. The reason? Huge immigrant communities from Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Turkey you get the picture.

But what does it all mean? One hard-charging, string-searing album, replete with reworkings of classic Macedonian, Turkish, Albanian and you-name-it, the Ottomans governed it, we-got-it tunes. The highlights start with the tight vocal harmonies of Staro Selo and just keep on going my favorite track is the Altin Yildiz Orkestar's ultra-hot version of the notorious Gypsy song, "Rumelai". In sum, Balkan Journeys... is a moveable feast of virtuosity and dementia, a must-have for fans of pan-Turkish music.

Ellen Collison, Dirty Linen (#87, April & May 2000)


My initial impression of this compilation of Balkan and Central European music from the exotic Canadian village of Toronto was, "nice, but it all sounds kinda the same." Over the past few years, I've developed a taste for the crazed dance numbers set to complex time signatures ("these are professional 11/8 dancers; don't try this at home!") of Balkan music, as well as the more stately sounds of Turkish court music. So I listened again. And again. And realized how wrong I was. "Balkan Journeys Close to Home" presents different aspects of this fascinating music from a quartet of combos sharing an evolving cast of players, a retrospective charting the development of the wonderful Toronto band Maza Mezé.

The earliest constellation here, Staro Selo, offers the most demented, joyous rhythms, and features the harmony vocals of Brenna MacCrimmon and Jayne Brown, tight, nasal, and suggestive of a scaled-down Voix Bulgares, one voice tending to a drone complementing the melody, the vocal equivalent of bagpipes. The 11/8 whirlpool of "Grabile Smiljana Devoika" is dizzying, the glottal stops and yips of the vocalists echoing and echoed by the pipe and flute instrumentation, grounded in sparse yet lively darabuka percussion and strummed tambura.

Mastika, a trio, presents similar music in an calmer instrumental context. "Lupchevo" toes the same 11/8 beat as "Grabile Smiljana Devoika," but with focus on bouzouki and the tambura, a two-stringed mandolin. And is it any surprise that "Rod Serling's Trip to Bulgaria," a wild elaboration of the "Twilight Zone" theme, should appear on CD as we approach the millennium? Coincidence? Or conspiracy!?

The Mastika guys were probably playing concurrently in Neda Voda with vocalist Brenna MacCrimmon and, despite the recurrent complex rhythms, this band presents a much calmer, reflective, more stately image than Staro Selo. "O Gospozo," a Rom (gypsy) song, is notably sad and plaintive, and even the more lively 7/8 Macedonian song "Taja Vecer Ic Ne Sum Vesela" finds MacCrimmon's vocal in a melancholy mood.

The Altin Yildiz Orkestar is the largest of the four bands on "Balkan Journeys Close to Home," with the richest combination of sounds, instrumental and vocal. MacCrimmon's vocal (yep, she's in this band too, and also wrote the liner notes) is backed in depth on "Rumelaj," a slower dramatic song in what at this point seems an exotic concept, common time, and also enjoys violin accompaniment. Sax and clarinet join on the lively "Chiftetelli #6," a Greek instrumental framed by an undulating melodic figure redolent of caravans, tents, and spices, and featuring jazzy solos.

No, they don't all sound the same, but there are marked similarities in the evolving bands highlighted on "Balkan Journeys Close to Home," and all fine listening.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this act. Hell, I've never even seen them perform, and don't know them, and can't even reliably count out an 11/8 beat. I am not paid in advance to write reviews, although on rare occasions someone will pay me for use rights after the fact. If this is hype, then ALL speech is hype.

Jim Foley - Music Director, KXCI-FM, Tucson AZ


Every so often a special recording arrives in your life. You realize from the first listening that it is something you will revisit over the months and years ahead. "Balkan Journeys Close to Home" is such an album. Soon to be released on the Golden Horn label, this CD brings together over 71 minutes of wonderful sounds in 19 instrumental and vocal selections from four Balkan-style ensembles that have emerged in Toronto over the past decade.

The accompanying booklet is attractively designed and provides useful and interesting information on specific pieces, ensembles, and the creative process. Brenna MacCrimmon's note entitled "Toronto, Macedonia" establishes the context for the genesis of these performances: "Well all right, I suppose if you look on a map you'll see that Toronto is not in Macedonia but somewhere in Southern Ontario, Canada. I said that to draw attention to the fact that over the last hundred years or so thousands of immigrants, Greeks, Slavs and Albanians, from the ever strife torn Balkan territories made their way to this part of the world, to work in the mines and the forests of Ontario's north and to help build the infrastructure of cities like Toronto. Call the force whatever you will, America's Melting Pot or Canada's Kaleidoscope, as much as it encouraged assimilation it allowed for various groups to maintain some of the cultural aspects of their homeland. What this has meant for those of us interested in more that just the music we grew up with (whatever that music might be) is that we have only to go as far as the next restaurant, night club, community center, summer festival or picnic to sample a taste both musical and gastronomic of other cultures. And that's where this recording begins, with a group of Balkan folk music lovers, some music students and community folk musicians who began to sing and play together ..."

The ensembles are Staro Selo, Neda Voda, Mastika and Altin Yildiz Orkestar. Some 22 performers appear in the various ensembles, and some (for example, Brenna MacCrimmon and Ben Grossman) appear in more than one. One of the remarkable elements of the Toronto music scene has been the comfortable cross-over and experimentation that has allowed talented artists from a variety of backgrounds (ethnically diverse, formal and informal musical education, diverse musical genres, professional and semi-professional, etc.) to come together and explore old and new forms in a variety of performance contexts. For example, more than half the members of the Maza Meze ensemble appear on this recording. When I played "Balkan Journeys" for George Sawa - an ex-Alexandrian who through his educational and performance work has fostered the appreciation of Arab and Near/Middle Eastern music in Canada - he was thrilled with the sound and the presence of many of his former students.

The musical material is derived from a variety of sources. The notes suggest that while some pieces are learned from another musician, there are many which have been inspired by such sources as a "cassette of Razlog Rom singer Tsetsa" or "a large stack of 45 rpm from Jugoslavia". The performances are not slavish attempts to duplicate the source material. Rather, the original melodies, rhythmic and text elements inspire a fresh approach. The result is a highly enjoyable and the in-concert performances, in particular, capture the fun and informal dynamic between the performers and their loyal audience. I believe the recording will be available in stores shortly, and that Festival Distribution in Canada has picked it up for our market. For those who enjoyed Mercan Dede's "Sufi Dreams" on the same label, this gives you another opportunity to hear Brenna MacCrimmonís vocal work. She is a remarkable artist who has maintained her Toronto connections while living in Istanbul and exploring in considerable depth the musical traditions of Turkey and neighbouring regions. This summer she is organizing a Canadian visit by a Thracian wedding band, and the group will appear at several festivals during July.

This message has been much longer than anticipated, but that is probably an accurate gauge of my enthusiasm for it. For people facing a long drive it is perfect; three times through and you've gone from Ottawa to Toronto with a smile on your face the whole time.

Ron McRae
Consultant Producer, Performing Arts
The Canadian Museum of Civilization